When Rishi Sunak moved into 11 Downing Street, he could have walked down Whitehall without anyone but the most plugged in Westminster-watchers recognising him.
Yet just five months, in July, a YouGov poll found that he was the most popular chancellor since Gordon Brown before the 2008 financial crisis hit. A total of 59% of Britons approved of Sunak’s efforts to mitigate the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, with The Independent branding him “the most popular politician in the country”.
YouGov political research manager Chris Curtis told the newspaper that “the chancellor’s popularity with the public will be the envy of all across Westminster”. But could that envy fuel efforts to derail the rising star of the Tory party?
With Sunak’s popularity currently outstripping the prime minister, the entire cabinet and Labour leader Keir Starmer, according to latest polling, “some, perhaps more paranoid, Tories fear Mr Sunak’s soaring popularity may have made him a target”, says The Telegraph.
Suggestions are spreading about “malign forces” within his own party who feel threatened by the Richmond MP. One unnamed Tory MP told the newspaper that “Rishi is a serious threat – not necessarily to the prime minister, to whom he remains fiercely loyal – but other, ambitious cabinet ministers”.
The rumours of possible plots against Sunak come amid rising anger among backbench MPs following reports of proposed tax hikes to fund the Covid response bill.
“Confusion still reigns over who exactly briefed the tax rises story,” The Telegraph says. But ex-House of Commons clerk Eliot Wilson argues in an article for the paper that “it does not take the mind of a conspiracy theorist” to imagine that Downing Street may have been behind what now appears to have been a false flag.
The mere suggestion of tax increases was widely condemned by Tory MPs, with one unnamed cabinet minister saying that “putting taxes up now would be like acid rain falling on the green shoots of recovery”.
However, in a sign that Sunak has developed some political nous during his tenure in the Treasury, he was later photographed holding notes that said “there will be no “horror show of tax rises”, Sky News reports.
Some commentators have suggested that the leak was a carefully staged public message to rebel Tory MPs – a claim the Treasury has refused to confirm or deny. But if the leak was deliberate, Sunak may have been responding to negative briefings.
“The need to fire shots across the chancellor’s bow is indicative of insecurity in Mr Johnson’s court,” Wilson writes in The Telegraph. “Downing Street briefing (pretty mildly, it has to be said) against a chancellor is not front-page, blood-soaked civil war. But if it sets a pattern then the optics change.”
Hey, big spender
Sunak’s rise has been nothing short of meteoric, but “while throwing money around has boosted his ratings, he may soon discover that dealing with a recession rarely helps a chancellor’s popularity”, says The Observer.
“Sunak’s allies are acutely aware that his current popularity is a double-edged sword, with the danger of a backlash just around the corner,” the paper adds. “All he can do, they say, is try to make the right decisions, whether or not they’re popular.”
The question of what happens once Sunak turns off the money taps is his allies’ biggest fear.
New Statesman political editor Stephen Bush says “the problem is that Sunak is allowed to do as he pleases because of his high approval rating”.
This approval rating is “the product of an era in which he has spent freely, on everything from paying people’s salaries to giving them a tenner off their dinner”, Bush adds. But those close to the chancellor fear that once the spending ends, “his popularity can only head one way”.
As The Spectator points out, “doling out billions – over £30bn in the case of the furlough scheme alone – does tend to make you rather popular with the client groups who are receiving the cash.
“But now comes the more difficult bit: when the Chancellor Sunak attempts to bring the public finances a little more into balance.”
And that, despite the current mixed messages, could be through unpopular tax rises, or through another round of painful austerity measures.